The New York Times does not believe in creationism. They believe in evolution. They look down their noses at people who do believe in creationism. But when it comes to the social sciences, the Times believes in creationism, that is, they believe in theories that appeal to kindergarden-level intellects.
One of those “theories” is the idea that California faces a severe water shortage because lots of people have moved to an area with a dry climate. All thoughtful economists (on both the left and the right) view this theory as being preposterous. The California water shortage has almost nothing to do with population growth. Roughly 80% of the water is used by farmers, who squander vast quantities of water each year by employing extremely wasteful irrigation techniques in order to export crops like almonds. And that occurs because the price at which water is sold to farmers is absurdly low. Period. End of story.
This is EC101 economics, and I’ve never met an economist who did not understand this problem. But the Times can’t be bothered to talk to economists, they rely on historians:
“Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people to live here,” said Kevin Starr, a historian at the University of Southern California who has written extensively about this state. “This is literally a culture that since the 1880s has progressively invented, invented and reinvented itself. At what point does this invention begin to hit limits?”
California, Dr. Starr said, “is not going to go under, but we are going to have to go in a different way.”
That makes about as much sense as the Times asking a Christian fundamentalist preacher whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded.
The Times is a relatively good newspaper. But to reach the elite level of papers like The Economist, they need to become familiar with good economic research. And that means figuring out what economics is capable of telling us about the world, and what it cannot. Economists don’t know how to solve very many problems. But one of the very few we do know how to solve is the California water shortage. Instead the Times is more likely to ask economists to explain complex problems like unemployment, financial instability and inequality, issues where we are not very strong.
The problem is simple to explain and (in a technical sense) simple to solve. Of course the politics are complex, and thus far have prevented a solution. However, even dysfunctional California will eventually have to work out a political compromise.
PS. The water used in irrigating just that portion of California’s almond crop that is exported is more than twice as much as the entire water consumption of San Francisco and Los Angeles combined. The New York Times should be ashamed of itself.
PPS. Steven Johnson has an excellent reply to the above quote about “Mother Nature.”
First of all, Mother Nature didn’t intend for 2 million people to live on Manhattan Island either. Mother Nature would also be baffled by skyscrapers, the Delaware Aqueduct, and the Lincoln Tunnel. Anyone living anywhere in the United States”Š”””Šapart from the most radical of the off-the-gridders, most of whom are probably in northern California anyway”Š”””Šis dependent on a vast web of human engineering designed specifically to mess with Mother Nature’s intentions.
The question is whether that engineering is sustainable. What the Times piece explicitly suggests is that California has been living beyond its means environmentally. That’s the point of those extraordinary overhead photographs of lush estates, teeming with greenery, bordering arid desert. You see those images and it’s impossible not to feel that something shameful is happening here. And yet, picture a comparable view of Manhattan sometime in the depths of January, with a thermal imaging filter applied. The boundary between Man and Mother Nature would be just as stark: frigid air surrounding artificial islands of heat. It’s true that New York City distributes that artificial heat much more efficiently than the rest of the country, thanks largely to its density, but it’s still artificially engineering your environment, whether you want to make a dry place wet, or a cold place warm. And while the Northeast has an advantage over California in terms of rainwater, California has a decided advantage in terms of temperature and sunlight, particularly the coastal regions where almost all the people live. Coastal California enjoys one of the most temperate climates anywhere in the world, which allows its residents to consume far less energy heating or cooling their homes. California is dead last in the country in terms of per capita electricity use. Thanks to the state’s abundant sunshine (and pioneering environmentalism) there are more home solar panels installed in California than in all the other states combined. If you’re trying to find a sustainable place for 40 million people to live, there are plenty of environmental reasons to put them in California.